A cute little bird with a candy corn-like beak emerges from under a tuft of woolly sedge, and then nervously scampers by, flicking its tail wildly, just feet from my boots. A sora rail, I grin, my first sighting of the season. I see a spotted sandpiper teetering by the edge of the stream, as if undecided in which direction he wants to go. An Eastern meadowlark calls from the nearby tallgrass prairie. I take a hesitant step forward, flushing an adult pickerel frog. Get on with it David, I say to myself, you have to deal with the invasive plant species along the road. I shift into high gear, reaching the road easement quickly in ground-eating strides. I pause, take a moment to steel myself, open the metal gate and cross into another world.
I step over a beer can, a water bottle, and various other glittery pieces of litter. An SUV drives by, and the driver gives me a hard stare. A flock of house sparrows sitting on the fence irritate me with their annoying chatter. I look across the road at the matrix of houses arranged in neat rows and columns. Each house “featured” by an expansive deep-green lawn and tidy landscaping with colors segregated in their appropriate places; reds here, whites there and blues over there. I’m as nervous as a sora rail, I think. Thank goodness I don’t have a tail, its flickering would surely reveal my anxious state to all the eyes upon me now.
I move along the road right-a-way like a mythical warrior, coating enemy invading plants with blue-colored herbicide while sparing my prairie plant comrades. Many times each year I come to liberate the prairie front lines, hoping to hold the line at the road margin against an endless tide of foreign invasive plants that have only one lethal enemy – me!
The assortment of litter is now joined by yard waste: heaps of grass clippings, faded mulch, shrubbery trimmings, big-box store “disposable” flowers complete with potting soil and ID tags, and pieces of edging. Frustrated, I kick a tall pile of grass clippings and heave a few dried flowers closer to the road edge, foolishly hoping anyone watching will get the message. I remove my backpack sprayer and uncover a white wild indigo plant and several prairie sunflowers smothered in mountains of grass clippings.
I press on, learning to ignore the yard waste as I did the litter. Balancing precariously on pieces of concrete and limestone rock that armor the road drainage channel, I descend all the way down the steep bank to the floor of the drainage way. Disgust takes hold of me. Before me is a 4-foot diameter culvert, emptying the bowels of the subdivision. At my feet lie hundreds of cigarette butts, beer and soda cans, plastic bags, fast-food wrappers, plastic bottles, and countless other items from our disposable lifestyles.
Suddenly, I’m a 7-year-old boy again, grieving with the teary-eyed American Indian on TV as a pile of trash lands at his feet. The Keep America Beautiful ad’s phrase “People start pollution. People can stop it.” righteously gripping my idealistic young mind.
Five decades later, I grumble, and little has changed. I want to rise up and throw all the waste into the neighboring yards. I want to get people’s attention. I want society to care. But I know my place. It’s best not to disturb a pack of content hyenas.
I lean a car tire on the fence, make my way back to the gate, and step back into a world I understand.